On Seeking Originality

It's important that your work be original. Even if you're a fantastic writer, you don't want to be in a situation where the entirety of your success depends on your flowing sentences and your ability to evoke emotion – you want as many things in your favor as possible. The fact is, most people when they go to write, write the kinds of stories they know. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to write about a incessantly-brooding detective or a couple that breaks up over a misunderstanding only to resolve their differences at the end, you need to make sure there is enough originality in other areas. Why? I've had new authors ask me several times before, "If my story makes people feel good, why do I need originality?" It might be best to answer that question with another question: "If I'm shopping for a novel, why would I choose a familiar story written by a new author over one written by an established author?" I wouldn't. To that end, here are some ways to make your writing, your plot and your characters as original as possible.


Avoid Clichés

Every cliché is a missed opportunity. If you're describing the skin of an angel as "white as snow", you're missing an opportunity to show off your talent by giving an original description. Think of Clichés like microwave meals – it’s fine to have one every now and again, but too many in a row isn't healthy for you. Let's say you're writing a comedic farce, and you're describing a character that has never seen the light of day. Which is better, "He was white as snow," or "He was as white as an albino's armpit?" By choosing the second description I have maximized the humor of what might already be a funny section, and I have created something original... Dibs.


Avoid Traditional Plot Devices

A lot of things fall under this category, so I'll give a couple examples.

Having a lead character who is fully good and hardworking who simply falls upon bad times.

There's a lot of things wrong with this: it promotes the victim mentality, it's inhuman (everybody makes mistakes at times), and it's expected. It also leads to a very obvious polar shift: the victim takes control of his life, their life circumstances change for the better, and also the unfortunate phenomenon where, as your character becomes happier with herself, the circumstances in her life changes (thus proving that all our problems ultimately have to do with our own self love). Remember, honesty is an absolutely vital ingredient in any great fiction. Give your characters depth and your story will have depth also.


Completely Wrapping Up Everything

One of the reasons to avoid side-stories (as I was talking about in my last post) is to save the readers the excruciating pain of having everything wrapped up at the same time! When it comes to endings, many authors feel like they need to touch on every single loose end in their entire novel. A classic example of this comes at the end of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series. The last thirty pages of Inheritance, the final book, are filled with expositional dialogue explaining certain important tidbits, and ridiculous events that put a pretty bow on everything. Throughout some of the last pages in the entire series, a side-character who had previously sworn revenge on Eragon's brother for the deaths he'd caused by leading a village to victory against a horde of evil, tracks the party down and decides that his revenge is best served by giving his brother a scar on his hand instead of killing him... By the time I got to this section of the book, I barely remembered who this character was! Did Paolini really think that this tidbit was important enough to be placed in the final pages of the novel? Probably not. It's my belief that he felt people would judge his writing if he left any stone unturned. Hollywood has programmed this into us. It's not uncommon in movies to have two or three main characters that all get what they want in the end, satisfy their desires and live happily ever after. My advice is this: wrap up everything you can without forcing it on the story. If it seems unrealistic that all three of your main characters get what they want, maybe only one does. So, what if you realize at the end of your saga that three books ago a minor character had sworn to get revenge? If there is no way to bring it back without it taking focus away from the main message of your novel, just let it go. Sometimes when people go on crazy adventures, people swear to kill them. It happens.


Avoid Stereotypes

Planning on writing about a corrupt politician? Unless there’s something else far more original in your story, I recommend you don’t. Stereotypes are the equivalent of character clichés. Using them is the equivalent of inserting a paint-by-numbers picture into a great work of art, and they are even worse than clichéd description because they will not go unnoticed by the average reader. Here are some stereotypes I recommend you generally avoid:

The whore with the heart of gold.

The hardened war veteran with a soft gooey center.

The cut-out 50s housewife of your main character.

The completely average person destined to become a hero.

The damsel in distress, incapable of even trying to save herself.

People who are given a superpower and cry, “But I just want to be normal!”

The villain who lives only to cause destruction.

The doomed-to-die, random, last-second addition to a cast of main characters.

People who are close friends with famous people. (Or who meet famous people when travelling to the past… Just because you’re travelling to the 50’s doesn’t mean you’ll bump into Elvis.)

People who sit around in foreign countries speaking English.


Ignore The Lie That There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Isn’t it odd how nobody who has ever written a great story has ever said this? I hear this expression all the time from family members who have never written anything, and on websites written by people who teach writing instead of writing themselves. You know who doesn’t believe this? Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Orson Scott Card, Kazua Ishiguro. Don’t be fooled. If you delve deep enough, you can say that every story is the same. After all, every story has characters who stand up against conflict… but these arguments are irrelevant. It’s like trying to say that humanity is no different than algae because we both have DNA. The building blocks of a good story might be the same, but that doesn’t make the story itself any less unique. Allow me to create an idea, on the spot that has originality. Let’s see…

Concluding a twenty year lease of his soul to the devil, a man regains his humanity only to find himself on death row for a series of murders he barely remembers.

So what are the chromosomes, or rather, the building blocks of this story? A pact with the devil is certainly one of them – and by itself it isn’t particularly original. The second is the amnesia trope – again, not particularly original. The third is the need of the man to discover his situation – see any detective story ever written… Yet, combined in this way, we are left with something that is at least fairly original. Let’s say that instead of a man, I make the character a woman. Then, instead of a pact with the devil I make it a pact with the US Government to use her body in any way they saw fit in exchange for fifty million in cash. Instead of death row, which doesn’t leave much room for character interactions, I make it a level four security prison… This is starting to sound quite original to me! What if, I factor in an entitlement personality? Instead of having her be incredibly remorseful for her part in the deaths of these people (as is tradition), I make her angry that she isn’t living on an island in the Bahamas. She simply doesn’t care about the deaths of these people… This leaves tons of opportunities for character growth!

Remember, the lives of most people have the same building blocks, and yet our lives are often quite different. Some of us are law abiding citizens, while others are rapscallions of the highest order. Some of us are dating married women or men, while others join convents or swear off love to become monks. Saying there is nothing new under the sun is an excuse to be proud of lazy or aggressively mediocre works of fiction. Whatever anyone says, always seek originality. Otherwise, what are you bringing into the world with your words?


Writing Prompt

Write a 500-1000 word short story. Make the topic as original as possible, and make sure the piece is devoid of a cliché of any kind! When it's ready, click the contact tab and send it my way!